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How A Technique From Tensho Kata Saved My Life On The Street

By Detective Glenn Cunningham

As an undercover detective, this is just one of several stories I could tell based on this assignment. Let me introduce myself. My name is Glenn Cunningham. I was an undercover Police Officer/ Detective for the NYPD. I worked the streets of Brooklyn South for five years looking to buy any kind of drugs and guns. During this assignment, I used my knowledge of the Martial Arts to save my life in every situation you can possibly imagine. Let’s take, for instance the tight situation I found myself in while performing a 7 AM to 3 PM tour. Just try to picture this as a martial artist.

You’re in a small hallway, in a small housing project, five stories high, trying to buy some crack (cocaine) from some people you know are definitely dealing. How do you know? You ask! You ask the guy who just walked away from them with a big smile on his face. He tells you everything you want to know, from the brand name to the amount. So you’re all set. Just go into the hallway, hand them the money and leave. But not today! Today these guys are feeling a little nervous. They don't know who you are and want to ask you some questions and feel you out to see if you’re the man (police officer).

Now the last thing you want to do is get into a shouting match with these guys. This raises the suspicions of the dealers. Drug users usually do whatever the dealer says, because they want their drugs fast. So now all this is going through my mind and I now find myself in the hallway with some money in my hand. I approach a guy in the hallway and asked him if he was “doin.” This means if he or anyone else was selling drugs there. He then signals yes and calls his boy over, who’s standing under the stairs, to see if he knows who I am. At the same time the guy who was standing in front of me snatches the money out of my hand and a struggle ensues.

Now picture this: I’m 6’4” about 215 lbs. with hair down to my shoulders and have been studying the martial arts, (Goju-ryu Karate) at that time for about 15 years. I was 29 years old and what I considered at the time to be in pretty good shape. It was the afternoon, but the hallway was dimly lit. The guy in front of me grabs the money and we started struggling. I reach for my weapon since this has now escalated to a robbery and I was in a life-threatening situation. My undercover weapon was drawn.

Let’s face it; these guys weren’t there to talk about the weather. As I point my weapon at this undesirable, he grabs the revolver in such a way that the hammer of the gun won’t go back to fire. He’s holding the cylinder. He begins to twist the weapon to the left and my arm is being twisted because my fingers are still holding on. At this point it was still only a fight between him and me. I know that if he gets my weapon I’m a dead man.

As an undercover you have to choose if you want to wear a bulletproof vest, but the good U/C’s never do. As we’re struggling a huge woman comes into the hallway from behind me and I figure great, some help. No way. She just happens to know this person and decides to jump on my back and start to scratch and pull at my face. Now remember the guy under the stairs? He also begins to jump in, hoping to take me to the ground and take care of me. So now it’s three against one.

Let me stop here for a minute to explain to you what kind of training I’ve gone through as far as conditioning my hands. I was taught to constantly train your hands to be ready for any type of situation. Hitting the makiwara (a striking board or post that is often padded) is a big part of the training. Proper hitting strengthens the hands, the wrists, the forearms, the hips and the shoulders. It teaches how to correctly throw a punching technique with kime (focus). Training these parts of the body takes complete dedication. Most students are over anxious and start out too quickly, resulting in injuries, and they never train on the makiwara again. But with proper supervision and correct technique, you will learn how to focus for proper hitting during jyu-kumite (free sparring). The makiwara isn’t the only training I’ve done but it’s the constant.

Other training included: several thousand push-ups, smacking stone with both sides of the hands, forearm conditioning and some iron palm training along with nirgi-game (clay gripping jars) and chi-shi (stone weight). When you put this together with years of training with kata and free sparring, also several ippons, I’m told you start to become a martial artist. One last thing I want to point out before we go back to my situation: Tensho kata. Miyagi Chojun Sensei (the founder of Goju-ryu karate) developed this kata to complement Sanchin kata. It is referred to by a couple of different names, such as the “breathing hands” and the “whipping hands”. It is softer than Sanchin kata in breathing and in its fast smooth movements. The movements were taught to me by DeBaise Sensei when I was his uke (the attacker in two man practice drills) and on the end of vicious strikes of Tensho kata. At my dojo this kata is done after Sanchin kata. And Tensho was the first thing that came to my mind during the encounter in the hallway (since its moves perfectly fit the needs of confined space combat).

Now remember this is all happening in a matter of seconds! Something happens to you when you’re fighting for your life. You change somehow. I don’t know how but something happens to you. Your spirit seems to become very strong. (If you know what I’m talking about, at the end of this article I’ll leave my address, drop me a line to confirm what I’m talking about).

This move from Tensho kata was used to strike the assailant in the side of the head with one hand after the assailant had grabbed Detective Cunningham’s other wrist and revolver. Before striking the assailant in front Cunningham had first quickly withdrawn the same arm to his side, a move that provided an elbow strike into the person who had jumped onto his back.

OK, so it’s three against one, how not to get killed? Undercover time is now over, you’re a police officer and your cover is blown. What I remember, I’ll try to explain as best as I can. The woman on my back was suddenly off my back and screaming, running out of the building. As for the guy who grabbed my revolver, I remember striking him twice with my left hand (a move from Tensho kata where the practitioner hits forward and down with his palm heel from a high chamber position) into the ear location, which forced him to release the grip he had on the revolver and drop to his knees (this was the move that saved my life).

The guy behind him threw a punch at me but only grazed me. I countered with an upper cut that did not catch him solid because he was moving backwards. He then took off up the stairs. Remember this is all happening within seconds with no room to move! Now the guy who first went down from the strikes of Tensho is now grabbing my legs and trying to bite me. These street people don’t give up easily. At this point the back up team is starting to move onto the block. There are some things that I cannot talk about. For instance, how did they know when to move in just then? Sorry CONFIDENTIAL.

At this point, I don’t know how or from which kata it came or what I exactly did, but the guy trying to bite me ends up with his head through the glass part of the door and his ear is hanging on by a thread of skin. The back-up team arrives and they arrest the woman. They come into the building and seal it off. Eventually they catch the guy who ran upstairs and collar him too. The guy who went to the hospital was screaming something about seeing the devil and that he (the devil) took his ear. I, as an undercover, was screened so as not to be seen too much in the area (yes, I too was handcuffed).

I was a little curious about why the woman who was on my back suddenly went screaming down the hallway. One of the cops later told me that she was pregnant and that she was in pain from me hitting her with my elbow (a reverse elbow backwards is part of Tensho and many other kata when the practioner is doing another technique to the front). She should not have jumped on my back. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not superman and don’t pretend to be. I just did what I was trained to do - survive.

My final thought is that if I had not been trained properly in the martial arts and the bunkai of Tensho kata (and other kata too), this situation would have ended differently. The main attack was with the guy who grabbed my weapon and if I had not trained both sides of my hands to hit equally (using the palm heel strike) he could have pulled my revolver away from me and I would not have been able to write this article.

This was an actual undercover operation for the New York City Police Department. It took place in the confines of the 72nd Pct. by the Brooklyn South narcotics Bulldog team, March, 1993.

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About The Author:

Glenn Cunningham is a Second Grade Detective and 19 year member of the NYPD and has worked several assignments for the Dept. He is currently working in a Confidential Terrorism Unit within the Intelligence Division. He is the owner of the Staten Island Jundokan /Kouketsu Dojo located at 278 Lincoln Ave, Staten Island, N.Y 10306. Cunningham Sensei was graded by Miyazato Sensei in Sept.1999 to Roku-Dan (6th Dan) and is a life long member of the Jundokan in Okinawa. He can be reached at His website: Dojo Number: 917-375-3986

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kata, kata applications, bunkai, tensho, street self-defense, weapon self-defense

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